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by George Graham
(Thirty Tigers Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/14/2018)
A surprising number of young bands are looking to the past for inspiration, and the different varieties of retro-flavored music run the gamut from Motown and Memphis soul, swing-era, to Beatles-influenced pop, to folkies, to 1970s electronic. While some of the groups direct their efforts at authentically recreating the details of the earlier sound, others use them as the basis for inspiration and take it in their own direction.
In that respect, contemporary commercial pop does not have a lot of vocal harmony parts, especially from groups who are more rap-oriented or depend on electronic Auto Tuning to get even one vocal part. This week we have the a new album from a Massachusetts quartet who start with a kind of retro folky vocal harmony sound as a basis, and take it in their own direction. The band is called Darlingside, and their new release, their third, full-length album is called Extralife, with both of those being made-up words.
Darlingside formed out of a friendship among the members when they were students at Williams College in western Massachusetts, where two of the future members Dave Senft and Auyon Mukharji were paired as roommates their freshman year. Bassist Senft was mainly into computers growing up, but Makharji played classical violin. They eventually joined a singing group with guitarist Don Mitchell, and were later joined by Harris Paseltiner, who was a cellist. The group started in about 2009, and in its first incarnation was a five-piece alternative rock band with drums. The name Darlingside, by the way, came from words like pesticide, which kills pests and fratricide referring to the killing of one’s brother. Senft said he had a writing teacher who said to “kill your darlings,” a reference throwing out what you think you like in your writing. So they coined th word “darlingcide” but changed it to “s-i-d-e” rather than to be associated with death.
The group goes in strongly for vocal harmonies and that is one reason they parted ways with their drummer. In fact, on the new album, almost every vocal note is in four-part harmony, with two-part harmonies at the least. Their last full album, Birds Say, was, according to the band, a kind of reflection on their youth and times past. The new recording, Extralife, as in extra-terrestrial, is a consideration of the future and what may be. Some songs can be a little apocalyptic, but there is optimism as well.
This album is also a lot more sonically adventurous than their last release, with sometimes atmospheric arrangements, and the frequent use of Makharji’s violin and Paseltiner’s cello. They also bring in a trumpet from time to time, and are not afraid to get into fuzzed up guitars. The result is an album that can conjure the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys at times, or Crosby Stills and Nash at others, while musically, the arrangements run from art-rock to folky to new age. It’s an intriguing mix, with the vocal harmonies being constantly impressive.
The album opens its title piece Extralife which exemplifies the interesting but engaging sonic mix of the album, with atmospheric synthesizers accompanying the dense vocal harmonies. <<>>
That leads into a track called Singularity with a curious contrast between the very attractive tune with sweet vocal harmonies and the lyrics that can tend toward the apocalyptic. <<>>
That contrasts with the optimistic words on Futures, with combines some spacey but subtle electronic sound with acoustic guitars and banjos. <<>>
Also positive in lyrical outlook is Hold Your Head Up High. It’s one of the most appealing tracks on this very likable album. <<>>
Among the more eclectic pieces on Extralife is Eschaton, a term which is a reference to the biblical end-times. But the song seems to be more about a relationship. The arrangement is somewhat quirky with a kind of old-fashioned sci-fi synthesizer line and some fuzzy guitars. <<>>
With a more contemplative sound is Old Friend which is a kind of tribute to some long-time friend, whick features the mellow vocal harmonies with eclectic instrumentation. <<>>
Perhaps the closest track to rock on this album is Indian Orchard Road, which though it lacks drums, features a kind of edgy rhythm with a combination of the violin and cello with electric guitars. <<>>
The album ends on a lyrically pessimistic note, with the track The Best of the Best of Times, which basically says that this is not the best of times. It again takes a rather electric direction. <<>>
Extralife, the new third full-length album from the Massachusetts quartet Darlingside, takes the concept of a vocal-harmony oriented band to a new level, with strong harmonies throughout while keeping the instrumentation and arrangements eclectic and quite interesting with the violin, viola, banjo and some occasionally edgy electric guitar and keyboards. The songs on the new album are also lyrically intriguing with the general theme being a consideration of the future, with views ranging from doom to hopefully optimistic. The material and the arrangements are imaginative, the writing is great, and the group’s constant vocal harmonies are very impressive. Unlike many bands who use the harmonies just on song choruses or as a way to build up a tune, Darlingside sing dense harmonies almost all the time throughout their tunes, and their vocal blend being a major strength.
We’ll give the CD an “A-minus” for sound quality. Though the vocal harmonies are captured well, and the eclectic instrumentation generally comes comes through, the atmospheric sound can border on the murky at times, and the overall sound was compressed more than it should have been.
From the Beach Boys to the Beatles to the 1960s folk groups, vocal harmonies were a frequent part of music from past generations. Darlingside on their new album take the concept in a creative direction with their distinctive sound, with their new recording Extralife being a kind of quantum leap from their last album Birds Say from three years ago.
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